Web Presence, The Second Self, and Being Kind to Your Future Archivist

The Heartbleed mess sent me scrambling to change passwords two weeks ago. I’m one of those people who previously rotated between three or four passwords on every site because I’m incapable of remembering any more combinations of letters, numbers, and symbols. Now, it seems, that is an entirely unsafe practice. So, I bought a password manager and dutifully changed the password for every place I have information stored online. Or, at least, I think I changed the password for every location that contains a piece of personal data. The thing is, I have information distributed to so many devices and sites it’s hard to tell if I caught everything. There are three devices (iPhone, iPad, and the husband’s Macbook) that actively contain material that speaks to who I am plus another two devices (a hard drive and my own aged Macbook) sitting at home in the States that still harbor evidence of me. In addition, there are no fewer than forty sites (though I think no more than fifty) on which I have some combination of a profile, financial record, and personal preferences stored – illustrated here with a handy word cloud: 20140429-133858.jpg I am not alone in this. Nearly every site I use has millions of users on any given day, which leads me to believe I’m not the only person who spends time scattering herself around cyberspace with reckless abandon. On the contrary, this is the condition of the self in the twenty-first century. As cyborg anthropologist Amber Case has explained brilliantly in her TED Talk, “We are all cyborgs now,” the twenty-first century self is often two selves: a real world self and a second self present online. This second self is projected via our technological extensions like smartphones and computers and exists as a distinct identity apart from our everyday, flesh and blood selves

This is not to say there is no correlation between our online and offline selves, but I think Case taps into the reality that our online selves are particular and have, to a great extent, their own subjectivities. Even if I don’t create entirely different personas online, the person present on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, or emails is at once me and not me. It is me in that it is a display of things I’ve done or said or written, but it is not me in the sense that there are pieces missing. Intentionally missing, even – I do not usually choose to display the grungy-t-shirt days, my unsuccessful-run days, my emotional-outburst days, my insecure-about-grad-school days online. My spouse, friends, and family know that self offline and I might hint about it online, as I’m doing here, but that self is for the most part absent from the online self. Nothing too new here, I think, even if you’ve never heard it articulated this way before.

But what on earth does the Heartbleed virus, online identity, and cyborg anthropology have to do with our future archivists? Archivists are charged with preserving and maintaining the records of institutions and cultures for use by citizens, CEOs, managers, governments, and researchers. Some of the curious men and women who go digging through the paper and digital sources of archives will be looking for evidence of how some swath of a population conducted or understood themselves. I’m thinking mainly of historians here, though I recognize we aren’t the only ones interested in what the internet will offer as a source. Book historians in 2050 might be interested in Goodreads or Amazon booklists/orders as evidence of what books were reaching a populace. Twitter feeds are already being stored by the Library of Congress. Food historians could have a rich primary source in Instagram and Facebook archives. Cultural historians will turn to blogs just as they previously turned to diaries, journals, and family bibles.

The challenge facing archivists at the moment is how to assess, catalog, and preserve the immense amount of material currently available, especially in the case of personal papers that are digital – preferably before the information is deleted or made obsolete by a more recent format. Their job is not made any easier by our scattering ourselves across the internet and multiple devices without a record of where we’ve been or how we got there or how to access that information after we’ve passed out of existence.

So let’s assume, just for a moment, that your personal information would be a valuable contribution to an archive. How would your family or an estate manager or an archivist locate you if you were not there to guide them? Ideally, you would have left behind some sort of metadata – perhaps a list of websites you frequently visited, the links to blogs you maintained, a book of passwords, a record of pathways to important documents on your personal and work laptops, desktops, and phones. Some archivists are now even hoping that there will eventually be an app or software that acts as a sort of memory box for our online activity, allowing archivists to immediately access the paths you’ve taken on the web over the course of your life with just a few keystrokes. (See Christopher Lee’s edited collection, I, Digital, for a more extensive discussion of the challenges and hoped for solutions archivists identify surrounding digital documentation.)

All this, I’m sure, sounds terribly frightening in an era of NSA surveillance, viruses targeted at common website formats, and the every present threat of identity theft. But, as a good friend pointed out recently, this is also an age in which it is completely reasonable to expect an employer to search your name, view your Facebook and Twitter feeds, and take the information gleaned into account when deciding whether or not to hire you. Many of us already take precautions to limit how much a stranger can learn about us, but there are always bits of information that slip through the cracks and security settings that change without warning. So what if you had the ability to log into your memory box, double check which photos are still visible on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Picasa, Google, and OKCupid all at once? What if you could scroll through and find the websites you haven’t used in the last six months, which might serve as a useful reminder to clean up or delete your profile on those sites? What if you could leave your family members with the password in your will so they automatically had a space in which to begin sorting through what to keep and what to destroy, just as they would do with your physical belongings?

Many of our personal digital records will not be useful or interesting to archivists and future researchers. Still, it seems like our second selves could use a little maintenance and care from time to time. Just like we take time to evaluate our habits and behaviors offline, it is a good and healthy thing to consider how we present ourselves online and to re-order or simplify or revise that presentation as necessary.